Photo by Candia Dixon-Stuart
It was an entirely fortuitous and serendipitous encounter. Major Howard was
sitting at a table outside Arlette Gondree’s cafe. (Arlette’s house was the first
French home to be liberated.)
I was in the company of Major Michael Hickey, a military historian who
was with my choir. We were singing The Brahms Requiem seven times
in ten days, all over Normandy, along with a French choir and the
orchestra of Basse Normandie. We sang in different towns
and we sang in German. The audiences were in tears. It was an
emotional and healing experience for all involved.
Photo: 9th June, 1944. Wikimedia Commons
Generous gesture – German flag festoons,
hoisted with the Allied banners. Bunching,
fussy boudoir blinds. Here swooping platoons,
like death’s head moths, stealthily came gliding.
Across the bridge John Howard bravely strode,
piper ahead, deflecting sniper shot.
Now European coaches block the road;
the dispassionate stamp postcards they’ve bought,
sending snapshots of Hell to those who knew
the mark of Caen first-hand. Wish you were here!
He was: a fact to startle and imbue
those that have eyes to see and ears to hear.
The café’s bright umbrellas shelter all
from noonday’s heat, so one could fail to spot
cool nonagenarian. By the wall,
hero’s crutches propped, ready for action.
His longest day is past; his time now short:
German beer his major satisfaction.
Clammie commiserated: I can see that you are affected by your friend’s
demise, Candia. He seems to have been a marvellous character.
He was, I affirmed. We really got to know each other when we went to
Normandy as part of a choral group, in order to join forces with a French
choir and the Orchestra of Basse-Normandie, in 1994. It was to
commemorate D-Day and we ended up singing The Brahms Requiem in seven
towns, over a week. Then the French choir returned with us and we sang it in
England for an eighth time. We performed it in German as a symbol of
reconciliation and the congregations and audiences gave us standing ovations,
with tears streaming down their faces. Sometimes the concerts were in
buildings which had been bombed and were partially re-built, as in the case
of the church in St Lo.
Didn’t you say that he took you to Pegasus Bridge?
He did. We arrived at the bridge and he couldn’t believe his eyes as
Major John Howard was sitting at the cafe, having a beer. We joined
him. What a legend he had been. He’s dead now, of course. My friend
recognised the old hero immediately, as he was a military historian.
Didn’t you write a poem about your trip?
Oh yes. I have already posted the one I wrote about Pegasus Bridge,
but I will post another one now, if you like. It tried to sum up my
emotions when we sang in Lisieux. That thrilling phrase: Ja, der Geist
spricht still creates shivers down my spine. I suppose it speaks of the
Spirit of Man, as well as the Holy Ghost. My friend emanated a vital
force of that Great Soul and, since he had been a brave soldier himself,
here is my poem, in his memory.
EIN DEUTSCHES REQUIEM FUR D-DAY
The breath of that great soul speaks in hushed tones,
soothing survivors of Allied assaults-
Brahms bathing the buttered Normandy stones:
tinting kaleidoscopic windows. Vaults,
in cross-ribs, soar to swelling resonance;
reverberate sharp reminiscences
of those who suffered in this audience.
Choral voices soften dissonances.
Ja, der Geist spricht. No permanent abode
can house indomitable souls on earth.
When Destruction came, still sweet music flowed,
inspiring creativity where dearth
had reigned before. The youthful soldiers sleep,
lullabied to lilt of liberation:
seeds watered by grief of those who now weep.
They’ve passed beyond that twinkling of an eye
and rest, sung heroes. Heartfelt ovation
from grateful present shows they’ll never die
in memory, or appreciation.
And when that final bugle sounds, they’ll rise,
as one, not knowing discrimination,
to jointly celebrate War’s own demise.
Related archive post on Pegasus Bridge- 12th Nov., 2012.